4 Overrated Productivity Maxims You Can Ignore

Erik Bassett
5 min readNov 8, 2020

For better or worse, we’re in a golden age of productivity advice. We’ve never known more about the tactics, habits, and even mindset behind good work.

There’s research galore on all the above. There’s also — and perhaps with more popular influence— a mountain of casual advice and quasi-memes around squeezing more out of your day.

That’s all well and good, but when the latter turn into axioms and imperatives, and you scold yourself for falling short, then it’s worth thinking twice.

Here are four productivity “truths” that, I’d argue, are anything but.

Or should you…? (Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash)

Wake up early, but only if you want to

According to just about every pop-psychology productivity guide and every article on the “Success Secrets of [insert your favorite CEO],” winners do more work before sunrise than you slackers do in a week!

And thus the echo chamber around the cult of the alarm clock.

Just one problem: forcing yourself into an unnatural sleep schedule seldom works. Our preference for, and ability to function at, different waking times is more deeply wired than most pop productivity pundits want to acknowledge.

Common sense — you know, that thing we used before likes and shares replaced it — suggests that forcing yourself into a biologically difficult schedule, then piling on pressure to win, win, win in the wee hours, is a recipe for a specially self-loathing variety of burnout.

But on the topic of waking, there is one thing that report after report after report confirms: simply get enough sleep. It’s demonstrably important for productivity and decision-making, and has a host of health implications that go much deeper. But that’s an article for another day.

To clarify, I’m advocating flexibility, not totally disordered sleep schedules. If you have a deep-seated need to sleep until noon, or perpetual difficulty drifting off before 3am, there might be an underlying problem to address. But this isn’t medical advice, consult with a professional, you know the drill.

Bottom line? If an early schedule suits you, then great! If a later schedule suits you, then that’s fine, too! Either way, don’t exhaust yourself with an arbitrary schedule, and don’t feel like “less” for taking some latitude with the early-rising platitude.

Strict morning routines aren’t for everyone

Most of the Early Risers Crew are also card-carrying members of the Esoteric Morning Routines Club.

We’ve all marveled at some folks’ multi-hour routines of exercise and cooking and meditation and stretching and writing and, for all I know, foraging in the woods.

(Well, we marvel until we have kids, but that’s another matter.)

Anyway, it’s anecdotally clear that some of us are productive at the crack of dawn and others don’t kick into high gear until the sun sets. Plenty of research corroborates this and even suggests different peak times for different types of tasks.

On top of this baseline variation, our days fluctuate for reasons beyond our control. We seldom expect a work emergency at 7:30am or an all-nighter with a little one, but these things happen — and not that rarely. These events, along with myriad smaller ones, all impact our cognitive “reserves” in ways that might undermine our ideal routines.

But missing out on productivity isn’t the real risk of blind adherence to scheduled routines. The bigger concern is chastising ourselves for accommodating life’s surprises as best we can on the fly.

You can time work and breaks, but not inspiration

We all know the feeling of getting totally in the zone — into that mythical “flow” state — only to be interrupted by a phone call or a delivery or a screaming child.

That’s as counterproductive as it gets. It’s also what approaches like the Pomodoro Technique risk subjecting you to on a regular basis.

If you’re not familiar, the method usually consists of 25 minutes of uninterrupted work followed by a five-minute break, with a longer break after four rounds (i.e., two hours) of this cycle. The numbers aren’t strictly prescriptive, but the general principle is to plan periods of absolute concentration punctuated with relaxation.

If that works for you, then keep it up!

But if that doesn’t work for you, then you may just be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Trying harder won’t make it fit, but it will make you tired, apathetic, and eventually resentful.

Use checklists judiciously — and rarely

Checklists are terrific tools for scaling or handing off processes. When everyone involved agrees that something needs to happen, but might intuitively approach it in different ways, then a clear sequence of steps is worth its weight in gold.

They’re also great for little things that we tend to forget. Did I mail that package? Did I book that appointment? Did I reserve a seat?

It’s a different matter for novel and challenging tasks — usually the kind of tasks where we’re inclined toward productivity hacks in the first place.

Never mind the fact that checklists often turn into comfortable substitutes for meaningful action. That’s one issue…but the real problem is that we don’t yet know what belongs on the list! Sure, use Guru X’s Official Guide as a reasonable starting point, but you must fully expect to deviate and experiment and make a bit of a mess before you know what’s really worth systematizing.

When the going gets tough, the tough rarely just open Evernote.

While We’re At It, Why Do You Seek Productivity Hacks?

That’s a sincere prompt, not a rhetorical question, and it’s worth pausing a good while for.

Here’s the crux of the matter. I fully expect some to disagree with this, perhaps vehemently, and that’s OK.

If you’re doing things that matter, with basic competence, then productivity tips aren’t important.

Conversely, if you’re relying on productivity tactics to push through a task, then perhaps it doesn’t actually matter (you have no intrinsic motivation) or is simply inappropriate (you’re in over your head but still feel the need to be busy).

It’s not to say that they’re pointless, just that they won’t solve underlying problems of the why or even the how.

Now, let’s take that even further.

If your task does matter, and you more or less know how to do it, then are you trying to avoid the pain of actually doing it?

Reading horticulture and mechanical engineering textbooks, designing a grip-strength routine, and building a rain forecasting model still won’t get your lawn mowed.

As I think about it more, perhaps that’s the real risk of a mindset built around productivity advice.

Not scolding ourselves for missing someone else’s criteria…

Not overcomplicating something we can already achieve…

But cheating ourselves out of grit and growth.

When we do what needs doing, and skip what doesn’t, the details have a funny way of sorting themselves out. Perhaps not always, but it’s amazing how often that’s true.

It also gets easier, and that’s the inspiring note I’ll end on. Diligence begets mastery and mastery begets enjoyment. Enjoyment is last in that sequence, but it does arrive.

No productivity maxim in the world can spare you the arduous journey, but that’s actually good news. All you need to get there is to keep on showing up and reflecting as you go.

Call it “conscientious grit.”

It’s free, it’s abundant, and it’s yours for the taking.